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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fatal Flaws - How Do You Like Your Characters?


This was originally posted on the Authors Electric blog, earlier this month - but it seems worthwhile reblogging here on my own blog. Worth thinking about and discussing, anyway! 

A little while ago, I was asked to speak to a group of readers. One of them had spent many years as a professional editor with one of the big, prestigious publishing corporations. All of them had read the Physic Garden and were interested in talking about it and asking questions. I’ve done plenty of these sessions and you don’t expect everyone to like the book. Some of the questions can be challenging, so you have to be able to think on your feet. All of which is a good thing. But on this occasion something happened that brought me up short.

‘How on earth,’ said this ex-editor personage, ‘Did you manage to write in the first person voice of somebody so unlikeable?’

There was one of those dismayed silences in the group, with everyone trying not to catch my eye. An uneasy stirring. A little murmur of protest. I’ll admit I was gobsmacked. It wasn’t that she was questioning my writing abilities. Not really. She was asking me how I could possibly have written 90,000 words in the voice of a totally unlikeable person. Except that of all the characters I have ever created, and if you include my plays and stories that’s a lot of people, I think William Lang is right up there with my favourites.

I simply love him.

Which was all I could say, really. The story was no hardship because I loved William to bits. Still do. And moreover, as somebody else in the group was quick to point out, even though William lived 200 years ago, you can still find his like today. Many of us know them and some of us think ourselves lucky if we do: elderly Scotsmen, very clever and sometimes self-taught, a little prickly on the outside, but with a loving soft centre, dry, humorous and with all the wisdom of their years. They’ll be doting grandfathers too, given half a chance.

Did it matter that she didn’t like him? Not a bit. But it did get me thinking. Because this was a person who had been an editor, a person of some influence within traditional publishing. And if she had still been working in that role, it would have mattered a lot. Because that would have been her judgement and yet it was one that the rest of the group – voracious readers - disagreed with.

And then it struck me that I've had other responses like that. Not, I hasten to add, from the excellent editor who worked on The Physic Garden, a pearl among editors, who confessed that she too loved William. But in the past, I've had agents and editors telling me that a particular character wasn't likeable enough. And although I’m prepared to admit that sometimes they might have been right, I suspect mostly they were wrong. It was a matter of personal preference. Something to do with their own prejudices. We all have them. But when publishing acquisitions stand or fall by them that’s when the trouble starts. Perhaps, like the advice to decorate a house as blandly as possible if you’re putting it up for sale, this goes some way to explaining so much that is anodyne in contemporary fiction emanating from the big corporations.

Do you have to like your main protagonist to write about him or her? Do you have to like this person in order to enjoy the book? I don’t think so. I rather dislike Jane Eyre, the character, I can’t help it, but I do like the book very much. I don’t like Heathcliff and Cathy at all. Who would? But I love Wuthering Heights almost more than any other novel and reread it practically every year. I don’t much like Fanny Price, but I enjoy Mansfield Park.

As for my poor William, she thought him too dour, too Presbyterian, even though he makes determined efforts not to go to the kirk as often as his family would like. And I think she believed that William had been prone to over-reaction, which is an opinion she shares with a few other readers, and makes a good point for discussion. For anyone who hasn’t read the novel, and without giving away any spoilers, our narrator remembers a time when he is reading in the library of his much wealthier friend, Thomas. There, he comes across a book called The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, complete with illustrations, and is shocked to his youthful core by the pictures he sees there. This is a real book. I was able to see a very old and precious facsimile in Glasgow University Library. But you can also find some of the images online. I remember seeing them for the first time. And I, with all my 21st century assumption of sophistication, was also shocked to the core. The images are very beautiful. But the horror lies in realising their beauty and almost immediately becoming aware of the fact that they are depicting the deaths of women and children, mostly through privation and poverty. You can see some of them here. But be warned before you click on the link, they are not at all comfortable to see!

Anyway, we agreed to disagree about William’s likeability or otherwise, although most of the rest of the group seemed to be on William’s side. But it also got me thinking about all those letters of rejection that said, ‘I liked the book but I didn’t love it.’ Or ‘I loved this book but I couldn’t carry marketing with me.’ (i.e. they didn’t love it.) I used to sigh and resolve to do better next time. Now that I only have to submit a novel if I want to, I realise that liking and loving a character are personal judgements and may have nothing to do with the quality of the book – but more importantly, they may have very little to do with whether or not I enjoy reading a book. If that were the case, neither Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner would be the astonishing reads they undoubtedly are. And as for Scarlett O’Hara? Oh dear me no. Consigned to the outer darkness as terminally unlikeable.

I like my characters flawed, sometimes fatally so. How do you like yours?

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